Published: 20:36, 30 January 2021
| Updated: 20:59, 30 January 2021
A press photographer from Folkestone was arrested after taking pictures of activists protesting against the alleged conditions at barracks used to house asylum seekers.
Freelancer Andy Aitchison, 46, was held in a police cell for more than five hours and had his sim card and phone seized after photographing the protest on Thursday morning at Napier Barracks in Folkestone. The centre has been providing temporary accommodation for hundreds of asylum seekers since September.
The group, dressed in white boiler suits and masks, threw buckets of fake blood on the gates of the military camp and erected posters addressed to Home Secretary Priti Patel.
In recent weeks, many of those at the barracks have taken to sleeping outside and going on hunger strike to demonstrate against the reportedly cramped and unhygienic living conditions.
In addition, Covid-19 has spread through the barracks.
Two petitions have been set up calling for the closure of the facility, and MPs have also spoken out about their wish for it to shut.
Mr Aitchison, who has been covering demonstrations since 1995, said there were no police there during the protest, which lasted about a minute.
Later that afternoon - at about 3pm and after his pictures appeared in the local press, including Kent Online - one of his children told him there were five police officers standing outside.
"They came into the kitchen and said 'we are arresting you on suspicion of criminal damage'. If I had been sitting down I would have almost fallen off my chair, it was crazy.
"I showed my press card. I said 'this is ridiculous, I was doing my job.'"
He was taken to a police station where again he stressed during an interview that his pictures have been used by media outlets and he was paid for them.
He was released and has now been placed on bail until February 22. As part of his bail conditions he cannot go to the barracks, meaning he has lost out on further potential work.
Mr Aitchison, who has photographed other protests at the barracks, thinks his arrest is a concerning sign.
He said: "It feels like they are trying to shut the press. Obviously things are not going right in there (the barracks). There's been a Covid outbreak, these people don't feel safe.
"I have been up there so many times, it feels like they had a chance to shut me down and that's what they've done."
He added he would be interested to know what criminal damage was caused by the demonstration.
"The coloured water will have been washed away. There might be a slight stain on the green netting they have up. If they are going to arrest me for a stain, it just seems ridiculous."
Pamela Morten, NUJ national freelance organiser, said the union was “extremely concerned” at Mr Aitchison’s arrest on suspicion of criminal damage.
Speaking to the Independent, she said: “Andrew was present solely as a journalist and took no part in the protest.
“News gatherers are key workers and it is their role and duty to report on matters of public interest. The police should not be seeking to interfere, prevent or restrict what journalists record in this way.”
The Independent reported that Damien Collins, Folkestone and Hythe Conservative MP and chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on media freedom, has raised the matter with Kent Police and he would “continue to take a close interest in this case”.
A spokesman for Kent Police said: "Kent Police was called following a report of a protest in Shorncliffe, Folkestone at around 8am on Thursday 28 January 2021.
"Officers attended and a 36-year-old man from the Dover area was arrested on suspicion of causing criminal damage.
"Further inquiries led to the arrest of a second man, aged 46, in Folkestone at around 3pm the same day. He was also arrested on suspicion of criminal damage.
"Both men have been released on bail until 22 February 2021."